Thursday, November 8, 2018

Let’s Disagree

What do you get when you combine a diverse group of people, trained student facilitators, and a willingness to engage around polarizing civic issues over the course of a semester? HNMCP mixed those ingredients and came up with Let’s Disagree, a dialogue series offered as part of HNMCP’s Political Dialogue Initiative.

Let’s Disagree incorporated key features of earlier projects of the Political Dialogue Initiative—small group dialogue, polarizing issues, student facilitators—and added a new element: sustained group dialogue over time. Rather than a one-time event, we wanted to explore what benefits might come from a format that permitted the same participants to get to know one another through multiple dialogue sessions. We also wanted to attract participants with a broad range of political leanings and life experiences to make for a richer mix of perspectives. Finally, as the name suggests, we wanted to offer participants an opportunity to explore whether it is possible to disagree with respect and curiosity, and without being hopelessly divided (spoiler alert: we believe it is!).

Through an application process that asked potential participants to describe their background and political views, as well as why they wanted to join Let’s Disagree, we accepted nearly forty participants—enough people for five small groups, each with its own facilitator. The groups included students from several Harvard graduate programs, citizens from the local Cambridge community and suburbs of Boston, and representatives of four different continents—a diverse pool indeed (though, to be transparent, there were fewer applicants who self-identified as strongly right-leaning). Participants were asked to commit to attend all three sessions of Let’s Disagree, and to bring to each session a willingness to engage with respect and curiosity in a civil discussion of challenging issues.

The sessions—held over three Monday evenings in March and April of 2018 —were facilitated by HLS students Jonathan Rosenbluth ’18, Emily Joung ’18, Nate Szyman ’18, Leanne Gaffney ’15, and HNMCP Clinical Fellow Adriel Borshansky HDS ’15, many of whom have taken The Lawyer as Facilitator workshop. Jonathan Rosenbluth played a key role in developing the dialogue topics and background resources for facilitators and participants. All facilitators had the opportunity to hone their facilitation skills by leading a group through three difficult dialogues, and customizing the dialogue format for their particular group, and for each session. Session themes were controversial and topical: the #MeToo movement and fair process; power and privilege; and the intersection of free speech, safe spaces, and trigger warnings on college campuses. “Over the course of the dialogues,” noted Rosenbluth, “the participants seemed increasingly comfortable in voicing their disagreement with each other. One potential explanation for this trend is that participants were initially concerned with how others might react to disagreement, and as they realized that diversity of opinion would be welcomed—not shunned—they were more open in sharing their views. Personally, this highlighted the importance of encouraging the sharing of opinions that differ from our own and the chilling effect that reprisal can have on speech.”

Feedback from facilitators and participants is that the series was both successful and worth expanding. Facilitators felt their groups were better able to engage through disagreement over time. Participants appreciated the format, the range of backgrounds, and the challenging issues. And, we see room for improvement. Most participants agreed that they would have appreciated an even greater diversity of views . . . and more disagreement! This is perhaps the most encouraging feedback we could have received. And, it echoes a common theme running through the applications—people are frustrated by the growing partisan divide and are hungry for opportunities to engage constructively around difficult issues. So are we.  Happily, Let’s Disagree 2.0 is already underway in our fall semester course The Lawyer as Facilitator!